Chicago Theater Review: MR. RICKEY CALLS A MEETING (Lookingglass Theatre)

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by Dan Zeff on January 24, 2012

in Theater-Chicago

DECIDING THE FATE OF
BLACK MEN IN BASEBALL

In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color line in major league baseball, the first black man in modern baseball history to play in the majors. That’s a matter of record. In 1989, playwright Ed Schmidt used that seminal event in American sports and social history to write Mr. Rickey Calls A Meeting, a fictionalized riff on what might have happened on the eve of the momentous announcement that the major leagues was about to be integrated. Now, a revised version is being powerfully staged and tautly directed by J. Nicole Brooks at Lookingglass.

Lookingglass presents Mr. Rickey Calls A Meeting by Ed Schmidt – directed by J. Nicole Brooks – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

There are six characters in the play, five of them real people. Branch Rickey, the white man and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, is about to install the black Jackie Robinson on the roster of the team. Rickey has already decided that Robinson would join the team, but he wants a supportive and united African-American front to blunt the firestorm of controversy that will explode nationally when a black man takes the field in a previously all-white sport.

Therefore, Rickey calls a meeting in a midtown New York hotel room (set by Sibyl Wickersheimer), inviting three icons of black culture at that time: boxer Joe Louis, dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and actor-militant Paul Robeson.

The playwright acknowledges that such a meeting never took place, but it provides the opportunity to put a group of familiar and contrasting personalities together in one confined space to speculate on what they might say to each other, not unlike Nixon’s Nixon, which put Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger together the night before Nixon’s resignation and invents what they might have confided to each other.

Lookingglass presents Mr. Rickey Calls A Meeting by Ed Schmidt – directed by J. Nicole Brooks – Chicago Theater Review by Dan ZeffAfter some preliminary, mostly comic, byplay, Mr. Rickey Calls A Meeting comes down to a heated and eloquent debate between Rickey and Robeson, who sternly opposes Rickey’s plan. He points out that Robinson’s success in the white major leagues will siphon off other star players from the Negro leagues into the major leagues, ending black baseball in the United States and throwing hundreds of players out of work (which actually happened within five years of Robinson’s debut).

By the nature of the play, the character of Robeson (a volcanic James Vincent Meredith) dominates, whether by disdaining Rickey and the black men around him or urgently stating his case for the proper course for black people in racist America. Robeson’s larger issue – that of the white man’s distributing favors to black people in the old master-servant setup – begs the question: why not a team of black stars entering the majors instead of one designated poster boy? Robeson demands that black people throw off “Uncle Tomism” and take charge of their own destinies. No tiny, patient steps, no compromises. He even goes so far as to  ridicule Bojangles and Louis, both of whom support Rickey, for delivering themselves up to white America and ending broke at the end of their careers. He urges Jackie to reject Rickey’s plan to make him a Dodger and to insist on a wholesale entrance of black players into the majors.

Rickey, of course, insists that his way is the only way, claiming that Robeson’s demands would lead to failure; placing one black man in the major leagues is risky enough. Larry Neumann, Jr. is terrific as Rickey and even looks a lot like the man; although Rickey weighed 50 pounds more, the mannerisms are there as well as the shrewdness.

Both Louis (a brooding Anthony Fleming III) – who is preoccupied with his tax troubles with the government – and Bojangles (an exuberant Ernest Perry, Jr.) toss in their views but they are minor figures in the debate, along with a young hotel bellhop named Clancy Hope (Kevin Douglas, who earns most of the evening’s laughs as the wide-eyed and eager young man with his own savvy streak).

The 85-minute play delivers a surprising amount of suspense, considering the audience knows how things worked out in real life. There is genuine tension on stage, and the last half is continuously gripping in its clash of strong wills as Robeson tries to sway his fellow black colleagues, including Jackie Robinson (an outstanding Javon Johnson), who calls forth both the desperation for his chance to crack the majors – at whatever sacrifice – and the conflict after hearing Robeson¹s plea not to yield to Rickey¹s manipulations.

Lookingglass presents Mr. Rickey Calls A Meeting by Ed Schmidt – directed by J. Nicole Brooks – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

A few criticisms could be leveled at the play. First, as Rickey and Robeson (and eventually Robinson) go round and round, delivering one persuasive and deeply felt discourse after another, their speeches, articulate as they are, take on a didactic quality, like prepared addresses at a debate. The play tends to impugn Rickey’s motives in promoting Robinson to the Dodgers roster. Doubtless there was an element of self interest in Rickey’s actions, but the man took an enormous personal and professional risk in trying to break the color line, and he remains one of the true heroes of American sports.

More important, the premise of the play is questionable. Did Branch Rickey really need the public support of Joe Louis and Bill Robinson – both at the end of their careers – and the prickly Robeson to go forth with his plan for Jackie Robinson? One would assume that the American black community would enthusiastically embrace Robinson’s pioneering entry into the majors, as indeed they did in real life. The blessings of these black celebrities were hardly necessary – and in the case of the controversial Robeson, possibly counterproductive. Still, without those men in that hotel room, bouncing their ideas and passions off each other, there would have been no Mr. Rickey Calls A Meeting and we would have lost a stimulating and, at the Lookingglass, beautifully acted play.

photos by Sean Williams

Mr. Rickey Calls A Meeting
Lookingglass Theatre
ends on February 19, 2012
for tickets, visit Lookingglass

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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